Meet … Pete Westall, chief values officer, Midcounties Co-op

‘We’ve got customers and members who are more empowered, and a younger generation seeking ethical leadership’

Pete has held a variety of general manager roles at Midcounties Co-op over the last three decades, promoting and developing the society as well as wider co-operation. He has recently been appointed chief values officer, an executive role described by Dame Pauline Green, former president of the International Co-operative Alliance, as “going to the heart of what a co-operative is all about – a different sort of business that puts members and communities at the heart of its decision making”.

How did you first get involved with co-operatives?

I’d previously been employed in other retail businesses – but wanted to work in an organisation that was driven by ethics and not just by commercial return.

Co-operatives chimed with my values, and on the day Oxford and Swindon merged with Gloucester Co-op I started working for them. It became Midcounties when it merged with  the West Midlands Co-operative Society in 2005.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen?

The biggest changes have been around communities, markets and consumers.

When I joined in 1991, it really seemed as though co-operation itself was out of fashion and out of step with the popular political view. Contrast that with the last few years, where there seems to be a real sense that if as communities we work together, and act for the same interest, we all end up with better places to live, and that co-operation and co-operatives themselves have a real part to play in achieving that.

In terms of markets, co-ops, are more willing to get involved in sectors where the model was broken. At Midcounties we found a strength of purpose to get involved in childcare and energy, for example – areas where the consumer voice is often not as heard as it should be and business is driven by short-term profitability.

The third change is all about consumer perception. Consumers have realised there is an ethical way of doing business. The Fairtrade Mark is 25 this year. When it launched, people were thinking “why are you promoting that?” Now it makes sense to consumers, and ‘fairness’ has gone further, too, with the likes of Fair Tax.

You have recently been appointed Midcounties’ first chief values officer. How did this role come about?

In 2016 Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, published a book, Values: How to Bring Values to Life in Your Business. It was one of those books that you read, read again, and then think about putting what you have read into action.

At Midcounties we want a Connected Future, making it much easier for members to interact with and benefit from all our businesses. If we, as Midcounties, are serious about putting members and our values at the heart of what we do, how do we make sure that those values and our members’ voices are heard throughout the society – at board and executive level, in commercial decisions and in every other part of the organisation?

Ed forecast the role two years before it came about. He wrote recently that “culture and values are the next frontier for business in a world of empowered consumers, concerned employees and fluctuating social media reputations”, and he’s right.

What will the role involve?

There are three main strands to the role. Ensuring that: values, principles, our culture and ethos are embedded and communicated in a consistent way; Midcounties’ DOES (democracy, openness, equality and social responsibility) values are integrated; and commercial decisions are made in accordance with these values.

We have a good track record of actively listening to members. For example, 94% of members wanted action on plastics, so in March we launched our 1Change campaign which will see our businesses reduce single-use plastic consumption while encouraging members, colleagues and the next generation to do the same.

Members wanted more products sourced locally and transparently, so we launched the Happerley App, which lets consumers scan QR codes to view a products validated ingredient supply network. And we have around 20 regional communities, where local member select the local causes they want us to support.

We’re good at what we do. We are rated five Stars by BitC and were voted Leading Co-operative of the Year in 2018, but we can’t stay still or rest on
our laurels.

We have different businesses with members in different geographies and of different ages and we need to represent them and enable them to influence us. Midcounties’ co-operative difference is that we consciously prioritise member concerns as a basis of developing what we do. This role is a part of that.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities of the role?

The main challenge is also the key opportunity and is one faced by all consumer co-ops: ensuring the views of our members are reflected in the way we do business; and ensuring we showcase, celebrate and continually develop our co-operative difference throughout all our businesses – from Childcare to Phone Co-op. We have grown to over 700,000 members now, so ensuring they are at the heart of our  society, are engaged and rewarded for trading with us is of obvious importance

We’re not aware of any other role like this, but the world is changing and this seems like a natural progression. We’ve got customers and members who are more empowered, and a younger generation seeking ethical leadership looking towards co-operatives. It makes sense for a role like this to be created.